BY NICOLAS GRIZZLE | FROM THE SPRING 2023 ISSUE OF UKULELE
The ukulele, like all acoustic instruments, was not originally intended to be amplified. But as music and technology evolved, so did the sonic possibilities of the expressive “jumping flea.” Not only can you take it anywhere, but you can now make it louder anywhere, too, and it’s as simple as plugging into a sound system or an amp.
In this guide, you’ll learn how to plug in your ukulele, what not to do when plugging in, and get some tips for taking your sound to the next level. Whether you are playing at a farmers’ market, your band’s practice space, or a bona fide concert hall, having your sound dialed in as much as possible before you play will help you focus on the music.
In the Beginning…
While guitars began to get their electric buzz in the 1930s, the ukulele has only been plugged in since 1949, when Gibson first installed magnetic pickups on its TU tenor ukes. The ETU-1 had metal strings instead of nylon to allow the guitar-style pickup to work its magic and allow for the humble ukulele to explode with the thunderous sound of a volcano (OK, we’re exaggerating) when plugged into an amplifier. Despite the technical achievement and limitless possibilities of this modern advancement, the idea was a dud—only 88 ETU model ukes were made between 1949 and 1953.
Starting in earnest in the 1970s, however, players began to install contact pickups on the outside of the instrument that could amplify nylon strings, which allowed for better isolation of the instrument for large public performances. But the uke was experiencing a downturn in popularity at the time, so this new advancement didn’t seem to have much of an impact.
It wasn’t until the third wave of uke popularity in the late ’90s and early 2000s that the idea of plugging in the ukulele really started making headway. Thanks in large part to internal piezo pickups that allowed for clean amplification of nylon strings, ukes with pre-installed electronics started to sound much better and became more affordable and easier to use. These days it’s hard to tell at first glance if a uke is all acoustic or can be plugged in, as the electronics are often tucked away inside the uke’s body, with a small outlet for the plug hidden within the strap button on the end of the instrument.
Why Plug In?
Before we even grab a cable, let’s begin with why you might want to plug in your ukulele. For starters, it’s an easy way to make your uke louder for public performances. Plugging into a PA system or amp can help project to an audience in a large space, or make sure you’re heard over a band.
Yes, a well-placed microphone can achieve this goal too. But a microphone will also pick up stage noise or even crowd noise that may overpower the sound of your ukulele in the speakers. It’s also more prone to feedback, especially if you’re using stage monitors. And if you’re planning on moving around at all during your performance, the sound can fade in and out depending on how far away you are from the mic, which is distracting for the audience.
But it’s not just about volume; you can also shape the sound of the instrument by plugging in. Just like guitars, the ukulele can be plugged into preamps to alter or “sweeten” the tone. It can also be plugged into pedals to add reverb, chorus, overdrive, or a host of other effects that can subtly change the sound or warp it completely beyond recognition.
Plugging in can also make things easier and clearer while recording. For example, when Hawaiian jam-rock band Kanekoa recorded their latest album with Grammy-winning producer Steve Berlin last year [as described in the Fall 2022 Ukulele], they plugged the two ukes and U-bass directly into the mixing board. The sound of the instruments is clear and crisp, with a decadently sweet tone on the rhythm and lead ukes and a warm, fat sound on the bass.
Last but not least, plugging in the uke can help you get the most out of your virtual lessons, both as a student and as a teacher. An external mic is great, but you can really hear the nuances of your playing when plugged in. Combined with a microphone for talking to each other (either external or a built-in), teachers can get a more accurate picture of a student’s playing and students can hear more detail in examples from their teachers.
How to Plug In
At its core, plugging is as easy as it seems: use a 1/4-inch instrument cable to connect the uke to an input on an amp, PA system, mixing board, computer interface, or pedal. These days, manufacturers often include electronics in the instruments to make this as easy as possible—and they usually sound pretty darn good, too. Some companies, like Kala, have their own branded electronics built into their acoustic instruments. Many others partner with pickup companies (Fishman is a popular choice) for the electronic components installed in their ukes.
There are usually controls for volume and tone on an electrified uke. When you plug in, you should have your instrument volume down a bit from maximum to give yourself some sonic headroom. You should also make sure your amp is off or the PA is muted when you plug in, if possible, just to avoid the loud “pop” sound it can make at first.
For jamming solo or with a band, it’s easy to plug a ukulele directly into an amplifier just like you would an electric guitar. Another option that doesn’t require an amp is plugging into a direct box, also known as a DI (direct-in), which then connects to a PA system. From there, you can send your sound out to the main speakers as well as separately to monitors for you and the band to hear the uke as much as necessary. Pro tip: Using a DI with a “ground lift” switch can help eliminate buzz from your instrument in many cases.
More experienced players looking to fine-tune their sound can plug into a preamp to amplify the signal and spice up the tone. A preamp often takes the form of a pedal, though rack-mounted and desktop versions are also available.
Most pickups pre-installed on ukes are under-saddle piezo pickups. These give a direct sound of the instrument from under the saddle, which is where much of the sound originates. Because these pickups transmit the vibrations directly from the source, they provide good protection against feedback. These can also be installed on an acoustic instrument fairly easily, with quality pickups available for around $100 and really nice ones for $150 or so. Installation will require a couple of small holes drilled into the saddle slot to wire it to the endpin output jack, so it might be best to have a professional handle that part if you are worried about damaging your instrument.
You might see options like “active” or “passive” when looking at pickups. Passive pickups do not require any power and simply amplify the vibrations your instrument makes when it’s played. Active pickups use an internal battery or phantom power from a mixing board to boost the signal output. Active pickups tend to sound more natural and balanced than passive ones, but they cost more and you have to keep an eye on the battery life—there’s nothing that kills the vibe of a live performance like the battery of a pickup fading in the middle of a song. Plugging a passive pickup into a preamp will have a similar sonic effect as using an active preamp, with more options for tone control.
Another option is a soundboard piezo pickup. This often takes the form of a small round dot at the end of a thin cable that can be stuck anywhere on the soundboard, inside or out. This reproduces the warm, natural tone of the instrument, as it transmits more vibrations from the wood than the directness of the undersaddle pickup. This is especially noticeable in the low end of the frequency spectrum. It will also pick up more bumps, taps, and knocks on the instrument, making it great for ukers who use a lot of percussion in their playing. The downside is that the soundboard piezo is more prone to feedback and extraneous sounds, like arm movement against the instrument, so this might not be the best option for those just starting out.
If you want to get fancy with the sound when plugging in, there are high-end internal and external microphone options that eschew the pickup route all together. Clip-on mics like the DPA d:vote attach to the soundboard on the outside of the instrument and can really showcase its natural acoustic tone. These take about a minute to install and remove, and fit nicely inside a uke case. Permanent internal miking systems, like the Fishman Matrix Infinity, allow you to combine the sound from tiny microphones installed inside the uke body with undersaddle pickups for a best-of-both-worlds blend of natural and direct sound.
Do you need an amp? Well, that depends on your situation. If you’re going to be playing in a space that doesn’t have a PA system, like, say, outdoors at a farmers’ market, then an amp can certainly help. Amps designed for acoustic guitars will also work well to retain the acoustic sound of your uke.
Using an amp can also be a great way to jam with friends in a band setting, making it easy to hear your uke over louder instruments like drums or guitars. It’s also great for playing other styles, such as classic rock or blues, as you can easily add that gritty overdriven sound heard on many recordings.
You might also consider getting a powered PA speaker in lieu of an amp. These speakers reproduce a full range of sound (20Hz to 20kHz), as opposed to a guitar amp’s limited frequency range, which is tailored for that instrument. They’re also more versatile, with options for plugging in both instruments and microphones, as well as an aux input to play backing tracks (some even feature Bluetooth to play music from smartphones). A PA speaker can be mounted on a speaker stand, which helps project the sound more clearly and cover a wider range than an amp placed on the ground.
Pedal Your Wares
When it comes to pedals, a general tip to remember is “a little goes a long way.” That is, try not to overdo it on the effects, because it can be a slippery slope to snoozeville for your audience. Remember, the core of a good performance is your actual playing of the instrument more than the sound of the effects. That being said, effects are super fun to experiment with and can unlock a lot of creativity in your playing.
One shining example is Jake Shimabukuro’s album Nashville Sessions, where the uke sounds like a rock guitar with a full backing band behind it. He typically uses pedals live even when not playing songs from that album, too, including multiple preamp and reverb effects.
Andrew Molina is another uke artist who takes advantages of plugging in. For example, his cover of Jimi Hendrix’s “Little Wing” (from the 2020 album Evolv3) uses a delay pedal to channel the vibe of the ’60s, and the direct sound helps capture the detail of his blazing fingers on lead ukulele. Of course, there are many other contemporary players who explore the potential of effects pedals, often (but not always) in positive ways.
Work With What You’ve Got
There are plenty of reasons to plug in, but there are still purists who decry electronics for an “all natural” acoustic sound. For some listeners (and players), a microphone in front of the ukulele is more than enough. For some performances, this is a great solution and will provide the most natural amplification of the instrument possible. But it’s not the only way to do it, and it’s nice to have the option to plug in should the need arise or if you want to experiment.
It’s also important to note that while plugging in can amplify the volume and alter the tone of an instrument, it’s still only able to work with what the instrument and player are capable of. Plugging in won’t make you a better player, though it can help you get the most out of your lessons. And when you’re ready, it will help you and your audience hear the beautiful sounds of your instrument and your performance.
The Ukulele Owner’s Manual is the book that belongs in every ukulele player’s instrument case. Each chapter was written by the experts and performers at Ukulele Magazine, with topics ranging from commonsense instrument care to fixing rattles and buzzes to a pictorial history of the instrument. Book owners can also download how-to videos with step-by-step guidance on common set-up and maintenance topics.
Ukulele Basics – Learning and Practicing is a great resource for players just starting out, as well as those looking to build a more solid foundation of knowledge and skills. Get your copy today at store.ukulelemag.com.
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